Catholic attorney protects rights of people of Islamic faith

Photos by LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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The young family — dad, mom and three children — is happy with their two-story home in south St. Louis, in a normally quiet residential area.

But they fear they may have to move from their home of more than a year and a half after encountering what they see as a bullying neighbor motivated by his hatred of Muslims.

Eyad Alnusour, a native of Jordan, is married to an American who shares his faith and wears a hijab. He alleges harassment over parking by the neighbor that escalated to threats and, in one instance, physical violence. The ethnic-religious disparagement allegedly includes statements by the neighbor that "I don't like seeing your kind move onto my street." The situation was so bad, Alnusour said, that he installed security cameras. In media reports, the neighbor denied the accusations.

In August, a Bosnian Muslim woman bought a home across the street after it had been vacant for three years. The day after she visited to begin some work on her home and having a confrontation with the neighbor who allegedly harassed Alnusour, the home was destroyed in a fire.

Alnusour, who owns a car sales business and drives for Uber, turned to help from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and its attorney, Robert West after they alleged the neighbor flashed a gun.

At a news conference Dec. 20, CAIR-Missouri's executive director Faizan Syed called on law-enforcement authorities and fire officials to investigate the arson as a possible hate crime. West said he's unsatisfied with the work police and fire officials have done so far.

"CAIR-Missouri's goal is, one, to bring attention to what's going on in this street and, two, to invite the authorities to do more investigation and essentially be more forthright with these families who've been through some pretty awful things," West said.

West brings his Catholic faith to his job as a civil rights attorney. He attended Christ Prince of Peace School, St. Louis Priory and St. Louis University for undergraduate studies and law school.

His Catholic upbringing and education has had a profound impact on his views on social justice, he said. "The freedom to worship as you see fit, provided that you're not causing harm to yourself or someone else, is what makes a country like the United States better," he said.

When Catholic populations first arrived in the United States, they were viewed by other Americans in many of the same ways Muslims are viewed today, West said. The National Humanities Center reports that many people of the lower classes assumed the immigrants of the past represented competition for jobs, homes, and social prestige that rightly belonged to them. Even more so, though, anti-Catholic prejudice was about religion, with a feeling that American Catholics represented the Vatican and intended to take over the country.

"That's similar to some of the rhetoric you hear about American Muslims," West said. "And I think it's important that they have a voice, not just within their own community, and that you have people considered part of the mainstream American culture speak up for them as well."

West was hired in June as full-time staff attorney in the civil rights department of CAIR, evaluating case submissions and providing legal advice to those who seek help with potential discrimination cases. From June-November, CAIR handled more than 30 complaints, including wrongful terminations or refusal to hire Muslim employees, law enforcement or Homeland Security agents targeting Muslims and general harassment.

The focus is on people who have been discriminated for their religion, often tied to ethnicity. One lawsuit he filed recently, for instance, was against a company that allegedly refused to hire a woman because she wears a hijab. A U.S. Army veteran sought help from CAIR after he apparently inappropriately was placed on a government "watch list." Some cases involve people applying for citizenship and their application is stalled.

"It's been a challenging time for many Muslims in the community," West said, citing an upsurge in reports and many Muslims feeling uncertain and afraid. However, he said, St. Louis is still a warm and helpful community and "we also have received an increase in calls of support, people asking how they can donate and more."

Baitulmal, a charity formed to help settle refugees from Syria, has worked with multiple Catholic charities in the St. Louis area to help resettle people. 

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